Preparing for Doctoral Research
Pathways to a doctorate
If you are interested in completing a doctorate at Freie Universität Berlin, you have two options: the traditional “Individualpromotion” (individual doctorate) and the structured doctorate within a degree program.
The individual doctorate still represents the most common pathway to a doctorate in Germany. Characterized by a strong background in research and a broad range of subject fields, Freie Universität Berlin provides the best opportunities for pursuing an individual doctorate.
Doctorate in a degree program
Over the last years "structured programs" have been established as an alternative way towards a doctoral degree. As part of a graduate school or research training group (or similar) early stage reasearchers take part in a program which differs from the traditional way in both its formal framework as well as the focus on a better integration of doctoral researchers in a group and the wider academic community.
Introduction to the German 'doctoral or degree programs"
International doctoral candidates sometimes face difficulties to understand what is behind the variety of labels in use for “doctoral program” in Germany. Most frequently, these labels signify something different from what is commonly understood by doctoral school or graduate school elsewhere, in particular in the Anglo-Saxon academic world. A brief introduction therefore might be helpful.
As already indicated above, the so-called individual doctorate is still the most common way to earn a doctorate in Germany. As an alternative, first the German Research Foundation (DFG) introduced its “Research Training Groups” into the system, back in the 1990s. “Research Training Groups”, in German “Graduiertenkollegs”, assemble groups of doctoral candidates, ten to fifteen, to work on a defined research topic, closely supervised by a group of professors. The DFG funds these Training Groups generously, securing a living for the doctoral candidates and compensating all research costs (e.g. conference travel or fieldwork stays abroad), guest fellowships and publication costs. “Research Training Groups” differ from the individual doctorate without any coursework by offering specific training formats, among them summer schools and the like, that all doctoral researchers of a “cohort” closely interact with each other and normally attend common colloquia, and that they are advised by a team of professors rather than by a single supervisor. Finally, Research Training Groups are coordinated by an administrator (usually a trained scholar him- or herself) who acts as a contact person to all collegiate. Research Training Groups are third-party funded projects and as such they are not permanent but established for a fixed period of time (max. 9 years).
Doctoral Programs in Germany are modelled after the DFG-Research Training Groups. Though there are different types of doctoral programs, e.g. with regard to the number of doctoral candidates, the width and the binding character of the curriculum, the thematic scope, and, most important, their financial resources, doctoral programs share some characteristics: (1.) they all are run by a group of professors coming from different disciplines or branches of study, (2.) they all develop their own formats for mutual exchange and program-specific teaching, (3.) they publicly announce places, select candidates and admit them as a group to a certain date, thus facilitating exchange and cooperation between the members of one cohort, and (4.) all programs are coordinated by a scholarly trained person who cares for the doctoral candidates in all non-scientific affairs.
However, it is important to note that all types of doctoral or graduate programs, research training groups, graduate schools and so forth are optional in the German system. They are an extra, providing specialised training, close and interdisciplinary supervision as well as in most cases significant funding for the doctoral candidates and their research projects. Nevertheless, none has the right to award the doctoral degree, a right which rather is vested in the faculties or, in the case of Freie Universität Berlin, in the departments. Each department issues its own regulations (in German: “Promotionsordnung”) as the legal frame for the doctorate, and this frame regards the individual doctorate as a standard. Thus, regardless the program’s specific rules and conditions, admission to the doctorate will be granted by the department anytime, provided the applicant meets the formal requirements. No selection will take place. Each candidate needs at least one professor of the department who agrees to supervise the candidate and the dissertation. There is no obligation to form a group of professors as a supervising team. Once admitted, there are no formal rules for the research phase and no mandatory coursework. The dissertation has to be submitted to the department, the departmental doctorate regulations govern the processes of dissertation review and oral defence. The doctorate degree is awarded and the final doctorate certificate (in German: “Promotionsurkunde”) issued by the department. These procedures are fully independent of the program.
Even if a doctoral candidate did not keep up with the standards of his or her program and was expelled from it, this would mean nothing to the department and could not endanger the award of the doctoral degree as long as the departmental doctorate regulations have not been violated. German Graduate Schools do not graduate.
Doctoral degrees - traditional German disciplinary degree vs. PhD
The departmental rules and regulations for the doctorate ("Promotionsordnung) define which doctoral degrees are conferred. The traditional German doctoral degrees are disciplinary and in latin: e.g. doctor philosophiae, Dr. phil.; doctor rerum naturalium, Dr. rer. nat.; doctor medicinae veterinariae, Dr. med. vet. etc.). With the exception of Freie Universität's Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Department of Earth Sciencess, Department of Law, and the School of Business & Economics, all other departments offer conferment of the alternate degree Philsophical Doctor (PhD/Ph.D.); partly with disciplinary suffix, e.g. Ph.D in Natural Sciences at the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy). Prerequisite for the conferment of the degree PhD/Ph.D. is the successful completion of the curricular requirements of a structured doctoral program under the umbrella of Dahlem Research School, thus following the anglosaxon tradition. After completion of structured doctoral studies, DRS issues a Program Certificate and a Transcript of Records for succesful candidates of the DRS-programs. Doctoral candidates from sturctured doctoral programs need to hand in this DRS Program Certificate and Transcript of Records at the respective departmental doctoral degree office in order to be able to be conferred the PhD-degree. All doctoral candidates receive a Doctoral Certificate after completion of a doctorate (issued by the resprechtive doctoral degree office). Please find more information under "Completing your degree".
Most doctoral program at Freie Universität Berlin can be found under the roof Dahlem Research School: https://www.fu-berlin.de/en/sites/drs/about-us/drs_programs/index.html.
An overview of doctoral program in and around Berlin can found at the website Doctoral Programs in Berlin hosted by the Einstein Foundation.